BOSTON — “Remember to carry on a Jewish life and Jewish traditions,” Israel Arbeiter’s father told his adolescent son just minutes before half the family was deported to Treblinka.
It was Oct. 27, 1942, and the Nazis were “liquidating” the Starachowice ghetto, south of Warsaw. Amid the frantic shouting and herding of men, women and children onto cattle cars, Israel’s first instinct was to join his parents and younger brother in line with the kids and elderly.
Israel’s father, sensing the unthinkable, ordered his son back to the line with young people capable of work. Within days, Israel’s parents and brother were murdered at Treblinka, and the teenage Israel — called Izzy — began a horrific journey through some of the Holocaust’s most notorious killing sites.
A new documentary called “A Promise to My Father” follows Arbeiter during an eight-day return to Europe and the places where his family lived and died. Produced by the World War II Foundation, the film premiered in Boston on Sunday to coincide with International Holocaust Remembrance Day.
Screening attendees included at least a dozen New England-area Holocaust survivors, all of whom know Arbeiter personally through his former capacity as president of the local survivor community for six decades.
Arbeiter always urges fellow survivors to share their experiences with young adults as often as possible, and “Promise” allows the 87-year-old to connect with a larger audience than ever. Like other “testimonial” documentaries produced by the new World War II Foundation, the film will air on PBS later this year.
“How can you put five and a half years of living under such terrible conditions into a film of one hour?” Arbeiter rhetorically asked audience members after the screening. “Still, telling the story of what happened is the first responsibility of all survivors.”
Arbeiter grew up in Poland’s Plock, a town on the Vistula River with 700 years of Jewish history. The middle of five boys, Arbeiter recalls “a good life,” with his mother referring to her sons as “my basketball team.”
Even after Germany invaded Poland in 1939, Arbeiter’s parents believed Jews would be treated fairly, drawing on memories of the German army during World War I. As Jewish persecution expanded, Arbeiter’s father asked his sons to bury the family’s Shabbat candlesticks and other heirlooms in the basement.
More than 70 years later, and with his adult grandson accompanying him, Arbeiter returned to Plock with the “Promise” film crew to dig up the candlesticks. For Arbeiter, the candlesticks were a cherished family heirloom, and retrieving them to pass on to descendants would symbolically fulfill the unspoken promise made to his father in 1942.
Despite the best efforts of his shovel-wielding grandson, a slew of Polish helpers and Arbeiter himself, the family’s buried candlesticks remain lost. The building he grew up in has been condemned and will soon be destroyed, lost to history like most of Arbeiter’s family and the ritual objects they shared.
Arbeiter’s visit to his Plock family home and attempt to dig up the past is one of several emotional scenes in the film. Perhaps most haunting of all is Arbeiter’s nighttime walk around Treblinka, where his parents and a brother were gassed along with an estimated 900,000 other Jews starting in 1942.
At one point, Arbeiter stands alone in the former death camp’s memorial field and recites the mourner’s prayer next to a stone inscribed with the name of his town. The stone is one of 17,000 jagged granite monuments rising from the ground, each inscribed with the name of a town, city or country from which victims were sent to Treblinka.
“A Promise to My Father” also recounts the love story between Arbeiter and his wife, Anna, who he met after falling ill at a forced labor camp. Anna helped Arbeiter recover his health, a favor he was able to return when the two were reunited at Auschwitz in 1944.
Selected upon arrival to work, Arbeiter pulled a “toilet wagon” around the camp to empty latrines. He credits the assignment with exposing him to all aspects of Auschwitz, and allowing him to smuggle food, shoes and other items to inmates, including Anna.
Arbeiter’s visit to Auschwitz comes halfway into the documentary, and 68 years after he first entered the death camp as a 19-year old. Wearing a 2004 World Champion Boston Red Sox hat, Arbeiter explains various sites within the Birkenau killing complex, including the barracks where he lived and the separate women’s camp where Anna was held.
During his visit to Auschwitz, Arbeiter encounters a group of Slovakian teenagers touring the camp. Showing them his tattooed inmate number and calling Auschwitz a “death factory,” Arbeiter urges the teens to tell their families about the visit and what they learned.
Izzy and Anna’s wedding took place in 1946, a year after Anna was liberated from Auschwitz and Arbeiter “borrowed” a Polish motorcycle to locate her in Germany. The couple’s first daughter was born in 1948, and the Arbeiter family made its home 4,000 miles away from Auschwitz, outside Boston.
Like most survivors who moved to America, Arbeiter worked hard to feed his family, learn English and cope with an unimaginable past. The Arbeiters have lived in their Newton, Massachusetts home for 40 years, long enough to witness the birth of three grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.
A natural leader and convener, Arbeiter recently left the presidency of the American Association of Holocaust Survivors of Greater Boston after six decades of service. During these decades, he testified at Nazi war crimes trials, fought tirelessly for survivor reparations and helped found the internationally-recognized New England Holocaust Memorial.
Though he says he will never be able to forgive the generation of Nazi perpetrators, Arbeiter has long urged people not to hold the children and grandchildren of Nazis accountable for the Holocaust. He has traveled to Germany and Poland several times, and maintains warm relations with German diplomats and educators. For his work in repairing German-Jewish relations, Arbeiter received Germany’s Merit of Order in 2008.
In one of the film’s most uplifting encounters, Arbeiter locates a German woman who risked her life to give him and fellow prisoners bread as they walked to and from their forced labor assignment each day. During another, more tense encounter, Arbeiter sits with a former Hitler Youth member who claims the Holocaust was totally hidden from the German people.
Approaching 90 and struggling to maintain his health, Arbeiter acknowledges that he will probably never visit Poland or Germany again. He sees “A Promise to My Father” as a final farewell to his family, a rare opportunity to share his story with the world.
Although Arbeiter did not recover the Shabbat candlesticks buried under his Polish home seven decades ago, he cites his grandchildren and great-grandchilden as the fulfillment of his father’s last request — to survive and maintain Jewish life.